George Ellis on top-down causation

In a recent OP at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley (vjtorley) defends a version of libertarian free will based on the notion of top-down causation. The dominant view among physicists (which I share) is that top-down causation does not exist, so Torley cites an essay by cosmologist George Ellis in defense of the concept.

Vincent is commenting here at TSZ, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to engage him in a discussion of top-down causation, with Ellis’s essay as a starting point. Here’s a key quote from Ellis’s essay to stimulate discussion:

However hardware is only causally effective because of the software which animates it: by itself hardware can do nothing. Both hardware and software are hierarchically structured, with the higher level logic driving the lower level events.

I think that’s wrong, but I’ll save my argument for the comment thread.

540 thoughts on “George Ellis on top-down causation

  1. Hi KeithS,

    I finally noticed your thread today. Sorry about that; I’ve been a bit busy lately.

    To be brief: you seem to be arguing against the possibility of either bottom-up or top-down causation, on the grounds that cause and effect have to be distinct, and the top and bottom levels of the same entity (or system) are not. That’s a genuinely interesting philosophical argument. I hadn’t thought of that objection before.

    In other words, you seem to be saying that while you might countenance the idea of the properties at one level of a system explaining those at another level, you wouldn’t want to say that the former set of properties caused the latter. (I take it you are using “cause” in Aristotle’s sense of an efficient cause, as that’s what most scientists have in mind when they use the term “cause.”) Ellis, on the other hand, is saying that it changes in one set of quantities results in changes in another set of quantities, then we can legitimately speak of a casual link between the two.

    I’ll just ask you a quick question to get the ball rolling. Would you say that gold’s property of having an atomic number of 79 causes it to have other properties (such as a high specific gravity)? Just curious. I’ll be back in a few hours.

  2. Hi Vincent,

    To be brief: you seem to be arguing against the possibility of either bottom-up or top-down causation, on the grounds that cause and effect have to be distinct, and the top and bottom levels of the same entity (or system) are not. That’s a genuinely interesting philosophical argument. I hadn’t thought of that objection before.

    I’m saying that for a scenario to qualify as an instance of true interlevel causation, the cause needs to be absent from the level of the effect and the effect needs to be absent from the level of the cause.

    The fact that a computer is running Excel doesn’t identify a cause of its behavior that is unique to that level of description. You could (much more laboriously) describe the same cause in lower-level terms.

    As I put it earlier:

    At one level of description, you could say that Microsoft Word is loaded in a computer’s memory. At a lower level, you could say that a certain pattern of 1’s and 0’s is present in the caches and in RAM. At a still lower level, you could describe the voltages and charge distributions.

    The causal story is complete at each level. Software doesn’t have to “reach down” from a higher level to tell the electrons and holes how to behave within the transistors.

    More later.

  3. I think a better argument for top-down causation was offered by physicists like Richard Con Henry, John Barrow and Frank Tipler and FJ Belinfante.

    I mentioned Belinfante in this discussion with VJ Torley:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/cavin-and-colombetti-miracle-debunkers-or-can-a-transcendent-designer-manipulate-the-cosmos/

    But I summarized the arguments of Henry, Barrow, Tipler and Belinfante here that are very much top-down arguments:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-quantum-enigma-of-consciousness-and-the-identity-of-the-designer/

  4. Would you say that gold’s property of having an atomic number of 79 causes it to have other properties (such as a high specific gravity)?

    That can’t be the case. For one thing, 79 is only the protons. Are there any neutrons? Well, we know that there are–and that there have to be, but that there have to be neutrons (more than protons, in fact) is due to causes other than merely that gold has 79 protons.

    Francium is element 87, atomic weight 223. While its density hasn’t been properly measured, it is extrapolated to be 1.87. Heavier atom than gold, lighter metal than aluminum–following the trend of alkali metals, to be sure. So even if we recognize that gold has heavy atoms, we can’t automatically assume that it has to be dense in metal form. We have to consider electron shell structure and electron interactions, then we can start to understand that gold’s heavy atom plus dense packing is why it’s a dense metal.

    But one could say that the electron number is due to the proton number, and maybe try to argue that the electron structure/interactions do follow from proton number. Yes, but that’s a matter of “following,” not the matter of causation, since you have to bring in electron issues in order to really discuss why gold is dense and francium is not. We can probably safely say that gold’s properties follow from its being atomic number 79, since that number dictates so much in context, yet there are many causal factors that have to be brought in, and, alone, the 79 protons in the nucleus hardly gives us gold’s properties as bare facts.

    Glen Davidson

  5. [Ellis:]
    However hardware is only causally effective because of the software which animates it: by itself hardware can do nothing. Both hardware and software are hierarchically structured, with the higher level logic driving the lower level events.

    Keiths:
    I think that’s wrong, but I’ll save my argument for the comment thread.

    Though I believe the world proceeds form a Top-Down, God-running-the-universe process, I agree with Keiths in this case.

    Software can be implemented by various hardware architectures (MAC, PC, SGI, smartphone, etc.) The hardware animates (makes alive) the idea, the blue print of software, not the other way around. The better word would be “instantiates”. The hardware instantiates the software.

    There is the idea (dare I say “software”) of piano. It can be physically implemented in various ways — steinway, baldwin (gag!), electric piano, etc. The physical material makes the idea of “piano” alive.

  6. Btw, my previous comment relates to why I loathe ID being built on the foundation of information theory! ID should focus on the hardware, not software! That’s a heretical view from an IDist, but IDist using information and “software” to defend ID is going down esoteric paths rather than paths of brute hard facts. I prefer the improbability arguments of IDists be built on brute hard facts rather than the soft stuff of software and information theory.

  7. The improbability arguments of ID all seem to be based on the “every bridge hand is a miracle” fallacy. Nearly everything that exists, and nearly everything that happens, is so astronomically unlikely given the number of independent variables and the coincidence space, as to suggest EITHER that we’re living in a world surrounded by miracles, or else we’re looking at it wrong.

  8. Hi KeithS,

    I see where you’re coming from, now, with regard to inter-level causation. I think you have a valid point, when it comes to the workings of a computer.

    On the other hand, Stephen Talbott makes a powerful case for the existence of top-down causation within the cell: see http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/03/its_life_all_th057251.html and http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-unbearable-wholeness-of-beings .

    Glen Davidson:

    That’s a fair point about gold. All right. Let’s say that the number of electrons is the determining factor. The question then remains: is this a case of causal determination?

    Sal:

    Belinfante’s contention that God determines the quantitative properties of a system as we measure them would indeed be a valid case of inter-level causation. However, I imagine that KeithS would take exception to Belinfante’s claim that “elementary systems do not ‘possess’ quantitatively determinate properties,” and he might also ask what counts as an observer in quantum physics.

    Back in about 20 hours.

  9. vjtorley: On the other hand, Stephen Talbott makes a powerful case for the existence of top-down causation within the cell: see http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/03/its_life_all_th057251.html and http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-unbearable-wholeness-of-beings .

    I entirely agree with Talbott’s philosophy of life, but I think it is a mistake to see that as an argument for “top-down causation”. (I don’t think he uses that phrase, but if he does, he shouldn’t.)

    The very idea of “top-down causation” presumes that we can distinguish between “levels” of reality, since only if there are levels at all that we can even distinguish a bottom-most level and upper levels.

    For reasons I’ve gone into previously here, I don’t think that talk of “levels” is the best metaphor for understanding how fundamental physics constrains the other sciences. Fundamental physics is fundamental, not because it applies to the bottom-most level of reality, but because it is global (within the actual universe). Following Ladyman and Ross (Every Thing Must Go), a theory belongs to fundamental physics if and only if a measurement taken anywhere in space-time can confirm a hypothesis entailed by the theory. By contrast, models in chemistry, biology, sociology, and other sciences are restricted in the spatio-temporal regions to which those models can be applied.

    In other words, the constraint of fundamental physics to the other sciences is global to local, not bottom to top. Hence we don’t need “top-down” or “bottom-up” causation to understand how physics constrains biology.

    I think that’s fully consistent with thinking that Talbott is basically right about the ontological underpinnings of biological explanations.

  10. stcordova: Btw, my previous comment relates to why I loathe ID being built on the foundation of information theory! ID should focus on the hardware, not software!

    Of course it is built on information. It’s too hard to equivocate over hardware.

  11. KN,

    I entirely agree with Talbott’s philosophy of life, but I think it is a mistake to see that as an argument for “top-down causation”.

    There’s no question that Talbott is arguing for top-down causation. He writes:

    On its face, the language noted above — recognize, respond, function, adapt, regulate, and so on — suggests that something is going on over and above a physically lawful performance…

    But it’s not just isolated words and phrases that point to the organism
    as something more than a collection of physically lawful mechanisms…

    The mystery in all this does not lie primarily in isolated “mechanisms” of interaction; the question, rather, is why things don’t fall completely apart — as they do, in fact, at the moment of death. What power holds off that moment — precisely for a lifetime, and not a moment longer?

    …What we see, rather, is a continual mutual adaptation,interaction, and coordination that occurs from above. That is, we see not some mechanism dictating the fate or controlling an activity of the organism, but simply an organism-wide coherence — a living, metamorphosing form of activity — within which the more or less distinct partial activities find their proper place.

  12. Vincent,

    I read the Talbott article, but I didn’t find anything therein to persuade me that top-down causation is real.

    Could you quote some of the passages you think are most persuasive on that count?

  13. keiths,

    As I see it, the commitment to organismal holism and the commitment to a layered picture of reality are separate commitments. We get “top down causation” only if we try to put them together.

  14. KN,

    As I see it, the commitment to organismal holism and the commitment to a layered picture of reality are separate commitments. We get “top down causation” only if we try to put them together.

    Talbott puts them together. Note the phrases “from above” and “organism-wide coherence” in the following:

    “What we see, rather, is a continual mutual adaptation,interaction, and coordination that occurs from above. That is, we see not some mechanism dictating the fate or controlling an activity of the organism, but simply an organism-wide coherence — a living, metamorphosing form of activity — within which the more or less distinct partial activities find their proper place.”

  15. I think evolution is top down causation.

    Perhaps not from the standpoint of the entire physical system, but from the usual and customary human perspective. I would make an analogy with eddies in a stream, flowing backwards in places. On a human scale the back flow could last millennia.

  16. Hi KeithS,

    I suggest you have a look at the last two sections of Talbott’s essay: “Animistic Impulses in Biology” and “Mechanisms of Control or a Living Unity.” They make a pretty good case for top-down causation, in my opinion. These two paragraphs stand out:

    “Weiss emphasizes very much the same point: because there is no possible way to make global sense of genes and their myriad companion molecules by remaining at their level, researchers have “simply bestowed upon the gene the faculty of spontaneity, the power of ‘dictating,’ ‘informing,’ ‘regulating,’ ‘controlling,’ etc.”[39] And today, one could add, there is at least an equal emphasis on how other molecules ‘regulate’ and ‘control’ the genes! Clearly something isn’t working in this picture of mechanistic control. And the proof lies in the covert, inconsistent, and perhaps unconscious invocation of higher coordinating powers through the use of these loaded words — words that owe their meaning ultimately to the mind, with its power to understand information, to contextualize it, to regulate on the basis of it, and to act in service of an overall goal.

    “Weiss considers terms such as ‘regulate,’ ‘organize,’ and ‘control’ an ‘obvious reversion in modern guise to animistic biology, which let animated particles under whatever name impart the property of organization to inanimate matter.'[40] Weiss refuses to ascribe the power of regulating and organizing to specific material parts of the organism, which would grant them a kind of magical quality. Whatever regulates a set of interacting parts cannot be found in one of the parts being regulated. To see the principles of regulation governing any set of parts, we have to step back, or up, until we can recognize a unity and harmony that operates, so to speak, between the parts, becoming visible only from a more comprehensive, relational vantage point.”

  17. keiths,

    As I said above, if Talbott endorses top-down causation, then he shouldn’t.

    To repeat my objection: top-down causation assumes a layered picture of reality. But a layered picture of reality is not the metaphysics that comes from our best contemporary science. Therefore, the layered picture of reality should be rejected by anyone who thinks that science is our best guide to metaphysics. Therefore, top-down causation should be rejected by anyone who thinks that science is our best guide to metaphysics.

    It’s a further question whether the organismal holism that Talbott stresses, where parts of a system are causally constrained by global features of the whole system, is separable from top-down causation. I think it is, or any rate, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.

  18. vjtorley:

    That’s a fair point about gold. All right. Let’s say that the number of electrons is the determining factor. The question then remains: is this a case of causal determination?

    Well, I don’t know, it gets complicated. It’s not all about electrons–after all, you have to consider quantum physics in discussing electrons. Maybe it’s a lot about electrons considered quantumly, I don’t know.

    I think that one problem is the difference between the “rules” (laws, theories, whatever) and causation. The two are intertwined, but it doesn’t seem to make sense to say that quantum physics “causes” anything, yet it’s certainly involved in causality. To me it doesn’t seem that causation is anything too exact, however, if I were going to talk about causation of gold’s properties I’d tend to go to the stage of nucleosynthesis–definitely a causal time–then to understand gold’s properties as following from the causal episode and physics, plus whatever condition the gold is in at a given time–gold in the plasma state isn’t much like the metal, after all.

    Whatever that’s worth, I don’t know.

    I’m wondering on the larger question of “top-down causation” if the problem many have is that it’s considered to be “top-down,” not merely hierarchical. As petrushka notes, evolution can be seen as top-down, but I’d rather just call it hierarchical. The evolution of the phyla becomes constrained by the “body plans,” hence evolution is stuck building on whatever “body plan” a phylum has. But where’s the top? Chronologically I suppose we could call early time the top, yet it seems better just to think of it as early rather than late, and to sketch our hierarchies according to time periods. Traditionally, early time is portrayed at the top, but it could just as easily be at the left, or the bottom if one wanted to appear “edgy” or some such thing.

    Likewise with the brain, I don’t think there’s much question that there are hierarchies in the brain. That’s both ways, though, I think. Sensory data come in ordered primarily temporally, and then “ascend” a hierarchy to become categorized as something or other. Then we think about it, come to a decision, and the outcome of said decision coordinates hierarchically in “descending” fashion. Still, any “ascent” or “descent” is just for our convenience, our way of looking at hierarchies. In that sense I also don’t think that there is any real “top-down” sense to mental causation, but there is a hierarchy to which we conveniently ascribe up and down directions.

    Glen Davidson

  19. Vincent,

    Talbott is overreaching in those two paragraphs. For example, he writes:

    And the proof lies in the covert, inconsistent, and perhaps unconscious invocation of higher coordinating powers through the use of these loaded words [‘dictating,’ ‘informing,’ ‘regulating,’ ‘controlling’] — words that owe their meaning ultimately to the mind, with its power to understand information, to contextualize it, to regulate on the basis of it, and to act in service of an overall goal.

    It’s commonplace to use words like that without implying, consciously or unconsciously, that “higher coordinating powers” are involved. As an ex-programmer, I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself when discussing computers.

    It’s done for convenience, not out of necessity.

    An exchange from last year:

    faded_Glory:

    I am actually in the camp that uses teleological language for convenience, as shortcuts to describe what I believe are unintentional processes that are too involved and cumbersome to describe in purely mechanistic terms. This works fine until someone comes in who does believe in actual teleology in natural processes, and tells us we are biased for not doing the same.

    keiths:

    I think we all do this. It’s just that we tend not to notice until some misguided IDer comes along and points it out (or pulls a Mung by highlighting every teleological word in bold).

    Folks in my profession use teleological language all the time. Here are some examples (with the Mung treatment applied):

    The load wants to use the cache, but the snoops are hogging the interface.

    There is contention. The device is asserting the interrupt, but the test circuit is trying to pull it high.

    The scheduler sees that the load is misaligned, so it tells the renamer to reserve the same physical register for both aligned pieces.

    You see, processors are full of conscious, purposeful entities who are pushing, pulling, using, reserving, asserting, wanting, seeing, and telling.

    Take that, materialists!

    Lizzie:

    A discussion re fMRI yesterday:

    “The model is trying to fit the underswing, and so it’s having to use the temporal derivative, and that’s bringing the peak forward…”

  20. Computer Hardware (usually simply called ‘hardware’ when a computing context is concerned) is the collection of physical elements that constitutes a computer system. Computer hardware is the physical parts or components of a computer, such as the monitor, mouse, keyboard, computer data storage, hard disk drive (HDD), graphic cards, sound cards, memory (RAM), motherboard, and so on, all of which are physical objects that are tangible. In contrast, software is instructions that can be stored and run by hardware.

    Software is any set of machine-readable instructions that directs a computer’s processor to perform specific operations. A combination of hardware and software forms a usable computing system.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_hardware

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

  21. Mung,

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    No, the software is physical too — it’s just easier to change than the hardware. Hence the software/firmware/hardware trichotomy.

    From your Wikipedia excerpt:

    Software is any set of machine-readable instructions that directs a computer’s processor to perform specific operations.

    “Machine-readable” implies physical. Processors don’t execute non-physical code that is floating around in some Platonic realm.

  22. Ellis voices a similar confusion:

    A: Causal Efficacy of Non Physical entities: Both the program and the data are non-physical entities, indeed so is all software. A program is not a physical thing you can point to, but by Definition 2 it certainly exists. You can point to a CD or flashdrive where it is stored, but that is not the thing in itself: it is a medium in which it is stored. The program itself is an abstract entity, shaped by abstract logic. Is the software “nothing but” its realisation through a specific set of stored electronic states in the computer memory banks? No it is not because it is the precise pattern in those states that matters: a higher level relation that is not apparent at the scale of the electrons themselves. It’s a relational thing (and if you get the relations between the symbols wrong, so you have a syntax error, it will all come to a grinding halt). This abstract nature of software is realised in the concept of virtual machines, which occur at every level in the computer hierarchy except the bottom one [17]. But this tower of virtual machines causes physical effects in the real world, for example when a computer controls a robot in an assembly line to create physical artefacts.

  23. keiths, glad you’ve gotten around to discussing computer hardware/software. The claim that software is somehow non-physical was just to get your attention. But that does seem to be implied by the wiki article. 🙂

    Computer hardware is no less top-down than software. Or do you think that atoms spontaneously arrange to form logic gates which then spontaneously form arrangements that can perform logic functions.

    Basic Logic Gates

    Digital Logic

    Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

    All we have to do is go through the process of building a computer from scratch to see how mistaken you are. There are books out there, you know.

  24. Mung,

    All we have to do is go through the process of building a computer from scratch to see how mistaken you are.

    Suppose we build a computer from scratch. At what point(s) in the process does top-down causation occur?

    Be specific.

  25. keiths: Suppose we build a computer from scratch. At what point(s) in the process does top-down causation occur?

    As soon as you actually perform an act the purpose of which is to build a computer.

    You’ve no doubt used a breadboard. Let’s set aside for the moment that the breadboard itself is the result of top-down causation. How would you go about actualizing even a simple computing device?

    You could just sit there and wait for one to appear, I suppose. Bottom up.

  26. As soon as you actually perform an act the purpose of which is to build a computer.

    Why would that be an instance of top-down causation, when the entire process can, in principle, be explained at the physical level?

  27. Meanwhile, you are begging not to answer my question:

    Why would that be an instance of top-down causation, when the entire process can, in principle, be explained at the physical level?

  28. Again I ask you, what makes you think top-down causation is non-physical? Of course it can be explained at the physical level.

  29. Mung,

    Again I ask you, what makes you think top-down causation is non-physical?

    “Again”? You haven’t asked me that question before.

    Ellis claims that software is an instance of a non-physical entity with downward causal powers. See Causal Efficacy of Non Physical entities.

    You wrote:

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    Both you and Ellis are wrong. Only physically instantiated software has causal power.

    Again:

    At one level of description, you could say that Microsoft Word is loaded in a computer’s memory. At a lower level, you could say that a certain pattern of 1’s and 0’s is present in the caches and in RAM. At a still lower level, you could describe the voltages and charge distributions.

    The causal story is complete at each level. Software doesn’t have to “reach down” from a higher level to tell the electrons and holes how to behave within the transistors.

  30. I’m confused. You believe in software that has no physical instantiation?

    If, as you say, “only physically instantiated software has causal power” then there’s more to the story than you’re letting on. Why are you giving software any causal power at all?

    I have plenty of physically instantiated software that has no causal power at all.

  31. Mung,

    I’m confused.

    Yes.

    You believe in software that has no physical instantiation?

    No, but you seem to:

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    Ellis certainly does. See Causal Efficacy of Non Physical entities.

    Mung:

    If, as you say, “only physically instantiated software has causal power” then there’s more to the story than you’re letting on. Why are you giving software any causal power at all?

    Because it clearly has causal power. That’s why people invest billions of dollars in developing it.

    The fact that software has causal power doesn’t mean that the causation is top-down. Again:

    At one level of description, you could say that Microsoft Word is loaded in a computer’s memory. At a lower level, you could say that a certain pattern of 1’s and 0’s is present in the caches and in RAM. At a still lower level, you could describe the voltages and charge distributions.

    The causal story is complete at each level. Software doesn’t have to “reach down” from a higher level to tell the electrons and holes how to behave within the transistors.

  32. keiths:

    [mung] You believe in software that has no physical instantiation?

    [keiths] No, but you seem to:

    [mung] ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    When one is engaged in discourse with Mung, it is prudent to be mindful of both Mung’s exquisitely careful choice of wording and Mung’s customary hyperfine parsing of language.

    Note that Mung’s “apparently something non-physical is required” statement only requires some sort of non-physical dealie; being utterly silent on details, said statement does not commit a person to subscribing to any one particular concept of… whatever that non-physical dealie might happen to be. As far as Mung’s statement is concerned, it would be perfectly okay for the instantiation of software to be 100% physical, as long as some sort of non-physical dealie is somehow invoked at some point in its normal operation.

  33. cubist,

    Well, I’m sure that Mung would love to get off on a technicality, but this case seems pretty clear-cut.

    He had just quoted a Wikipedia passage ending with this sentence:

    A combination of hardware and software forms a usable computing system.

    And his own first sentence was:

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    Pretty tough for him to argue that he wasn’t talking about software.

  34. keiths, the devil is, as they say, in the details. Others have managed to discover that I am often technically correct. You might ponder that.

  35. Mung:
    keiths, the devil is, as they say, in the details. Others have managed to discover that I am often technically correct. You might ponder that.

    I have pondered this, and I’ve tentatively concluded that one can either reproduce your exact words (aka “quote mining”) or one can rephrase your words (and be told “that’s not what I said”.) And I agree, anything other than your exact words is something you technically never said. So far, apparently nobody has been able to extract your intended meaning with any consistency.

    In this case, technically you’re correct, you never used the word “software”. But that’s like saying “I put my right foot down, and then my other one” and when someone assumes the other was my left foot, I can say that technically, I didn’t mention my left foot. And whoever thought I did wasn’t reading my words.

  36. Because keiths is a[n intentionally] dull boy:

    Anyone reading the wikipedia page could easily come away thinking that software is non-physical.

    Computer hardware is the physical parts or components of a computer, such as the monitor, mouse, keyboard, computer data storage, hard disk drive (HDD), graphic cards, sound cards, memory (RAM), motherboard, and so on, all of which are physical objects that are tangible.

    Wait for it…

    In contrast, software is instructions that can be stored and run by hardware.

    In contrast to what, physical and tangible?

    In contrast, software is instructions that can be stored and run by hardware.

    Software is instructions that can be stored. Pretty much begs for a non-physical interpretation of software. Where does it exist before it is stored?

    The keiths response that it must be stored to have an effect totally misses the point.

    The keiths demand that in quoting the wikipedia article I’m somehow required to adopt it’s “software is not physical” stance is just silly. I thought keiths would take to task the authors of that wikipedia page, but no such luck. He must agree with them.

  37. Flint: So far, apparently nobody has been able to extract your intended meaning with any consistency.

    So?

    It sure hasn’t stopped anyone from jumping to conclusions, warranted or not. Most people here appear to already have their minds clearly made up. Or do you not read the comments?

  38. Henceforth I will not assume anything about your intended. I will just ask for clarification.

    Could you clarify your position on whatever it is you are talking about?

  39. keiths:
    cubist,

    Well, I’m sure that Mung would love to get off on a technicality…

    What’s that Futurama quote—”technically correct is the best kind of correct”? Given the evidence of Mung’s posts, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Mung regards that quote as Words To Live By.

  40. cubist,

    What’s that Futurama quote—”technically correct is the best kind of correct”? Given the evidence of Mung’s posts, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Mung regards that quote as Words To Live By.

    Indeed. And bonus points if the quibble is completely irrelevant to the actual issue being disputed.

  41. petrushka, to Mung:

    Henceforth I will not assume anything about your intended [meaning]. I will just ask for clarification.

    Could you clarify your position on whatever it is you are talking about?

    And then clarify your clarification? And then clarify your clarification of your clarification? After all, we wouldn’t want to “jump to conclusions” about what you mean, by reading and interpreting the words you actually write.

  42. Mung,

    Software is instructions that can be stored. Pretty much begs for a non-physical interpretation of software. Where does it exist before it is stored?

    I’ve already explained my view:

    No, the software is physical too — it’s just easier to change than the hardware. Hence the software/firmware/hardware trichotomy.

    From your Wikipedia excerpt:

    Software is any set of machine-readable instructions that directs a computer’s processor to perform specific operations.

    “Machine-readable” implies physical. Processors don’t execute non-physical code that is floating around in some Platonic realm.

    Mung:

    The keiths demand that in quoting the wikipedia article I’m somehow required to adopt it’s “software is not physical” stance is just silly.

    What “demand”?

    You asked:

    You believe in software that has no physical instantiation?

    I responded:

    No, but you seem to:

    ok, so the hardware is the physical stuff, but apparently something non-physical is required for a usable computing system.

    “You seem to” is hardly a “demand”. And why didn’t you simply respond by saying “that isn’t what I meant”? Why the compulsion to blame your communication failures on your audience?

  43. Oh goodness. Where does it exist before it is stored.

    It exists as a full torso vaporous apparition within the non-physical mind of the creator. Minds are non-physical, aren’t they.

    Everyone knows of at least one mind not associated with a body.

  44. I don’t know why someone would think that software is non-physical. A universal Turing machine is an abstract description that is only realized in a sequence of material processes. It has no non-material realization or actualization.

    But since we have very strong reasons to think that neither life nor mind are software, I also would like to see some argument as to why the software/hardware distinction is relevant to understanding life or mind or anything besides computers themselves.

Leave a Reply